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Understanding How a Teacher’s Use of Conscious Discipline Increases Executive Function Skills in Preschoolers

Learn how your child’s success is affected by two vital factors: feeling safe in their learning environment and their problem-solving skills!

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

Before We Begin:

This article explains the paper “Teacher fidelity to Conscious Discipline and children’s executive function skills” Kirsten L. Anderson, Madison Weimer, Mary Wagner Fuhs, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Volume 51, 2020, Pages 14-25. Conscious Discipline is a social-emotional classroom management program used in Head Start classrooms across the United States and in several other countries. The program uses classroom activities and routines to teach children problem-solving skills and to create a sense of safety in the classroom.

Why is a Conscious Discipline program important?

    • The Conscious Discipline program wants all children to feel safe and loved. 
    • By increasing a child’s learning, the program helps them gain better control of their behavior and emotions.
    • The program fosters a sense of safety by providing a positive emotional climate for the children. 
    • When children are able to control their behavior and emotions (self-regulation) they also become better problem-solvers. This skill is taught through classroom activities and routines.

How do the students learn self-regulation and executive functioning (EF) skills in a Conscious Discipline program?

  • Teachers are encouraged to manage their own thoughts, feelings, and actions so they can effectively teach these skills to their students. 
    • For example, a teacher might model this behavior by discussing with the children how they react when they feel something is unfair, or if something does not happen as they wanted; and sharing how they handle difficult situations and solve problems.
  • Teachers can use routines to help students move from one idea or task to another, without upset feelings or problems.
    • For example, when a class must finish looking at books because it is time to begin math, some students may be upset. Establishing routines helps the students feel safe in their environment.
  • Children are taught to be aware of their emotions. They do this by learning to label their emotions (mad, sad, hurt, etc) and using regulation tools, such as breathing and visualization, to control their emotions.
    • As a result of this teaching, children learn how to avoid impulsive behavior and use higher-level problem-solving skills when problems do arise.

Why was there a study of Conscious Discipline, and what did they find?

This study was created to look at how different teachers taught the Conscious Discipline program to their students. It looked for links between the program’s teaching and the students’ learning of the skills.

They found that. . . 

  • EF and self-regulation skills strongly predict long-term success in school.
  • Stress affects children’s thinking skills and their EF skills.
  • Conscious Discipline helps make kids feel safe in class, which leads to children being comfortable with trying new things and building their EF skills.
  • Children make more EF gains when they are learning in classrooms with a more positive atmosphere.
  • Programs like Conscious Discipline may help a child’s academic performance in elementary school and beyond. It is important to watch these children to see the long-term links between the teaching of Conscious Discipline and students’ academic achievement.

Actionable Steps for Parents

  • We know that EF and self-regulation skills play a big part in the long-term success of your child in school. 
  • Stress affects your child’s thinking skills and their EF skills. You can work with your child to develop ways to reduce and handle stress. 
  • Just as in the classroom, you can also be a model for your child. 
    • Talk: When you notice yourself having to manage your own thoughts, feelings, and actions, talk to your child about what you do and why you choose to make the decisions you do. This will help your child effectively use these skills, too.
  • A positive, safe environment can help your child develop their EF skills. 
    • Support: This can be accomplished by praising your child’s appropriate behavior. Also, by building a positive relationship with your child, you can use rules and discipline as an opportunity to teach new skills.

Conclusion

In this study, links were found between how teachers taught the Conscious Discipline program and children’s EF skill development. Students learned ways to reduce stress and contribute to a safer classroom. Teachers who taught their students ways to have better relationships and be concerned for others found that their students had improved both social and self-awareness skills.